As part of the town’s celebration of Black History Month, Jackie Johns attended the events at the Garner Performing Arts Center commemorating Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier and honoring a group of visiting former Negro League players.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Johns knew some people from Kinston that former Negro League player Carl Long happened to know from Long’s hometown of Kinston. Johns just talks to people; it’s what he’s done his whole life.
But at the baseball-themed event – which Johns called great for children less familiar with the history of segregation and prejudice – the ballplayers weren’t the only attendees with historical significance.
Jackie Johns speaks softly. But he doesn’t seem to carry much of a stick. His appreciation of simplicity is reflected in nearly 77 years in basically one community, 52 years in one profession and 30 years on town council. Garner’s longest-tenured council member may be its least verbose, often saying little at meetings and seeming to avoid controversial or adversarial statements – or even really stating his opinion.
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But don’t dismiss his almost serene simplicity with simpleness. Johns said he learned a long ago there is wisdom in less talking and more listening.
“Mr. Johns is quiet, but he knows what's going on, I can assure you,” said fellow Councilman Gra Singleton, who has 20 years on the council himself. “He loves Garner, been here practically his whole life. He’s something we can all be proud of in Garner.”
Since first being elected to the council in 1983, Johns said he’s worked for the taxpayer of Garner, making sure to be a responsible steward of public resources. He’s won eight straight election bids; the last time he lost an election, Jimmy Carter was president. He also has earned the respect of those around him, especially the man serving with him for almost his whole term.
“Reserved is a good word. You don’t hear from Jackie much, but when he speaks people listen to him,” said mayor Ronnie Williams, who was first elected to the council just a couple years after Johns. “Jackie is a man of strong character, integrity and work ethic.”
But what makes the long-time dental service technician tick? The answer can be reduced to a fairly simple concept.
“In the course of the day if you don't help somebody during the course of their day, you haven't accomplished anything,” Johns said.
From Farm to Council
Johns grew up on a farm near where Battle Ridge Road is today northeast of Garner. He was one of eight children -- the other five that remain alive all still live in Wake County. Shortly after high school, Johns took a job offered by someone he knew from church that worked for a dental company; it’s been a career ever since.
His mother advocated community action, and he said she attended Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech in Washington, D.C., in 1963.
Aside from his mother and father, he cites as his influences King, former U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell, former Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and, later, former President Bill Clinton. Why them? “They were concerned about people,” Johns said.
Johns later joined the town’s recreation committee, where he served two terms. Upon a suggestion to run for council Johns agreed if the man bringing it up would help with the campaign. The man warned “you ain’t going to win the first time,” and Johns didn’t. But he learned campaigning and has pursued it doggedly ever since.
Singleton said Johns went door-to-door before it was popular, and continues to employ that personal touch to keep his seat.
“When he campaigns, nobody will outwork him,” Singleton said. “He will knock on doors and talk to anyone. It doesn't matter how old you are or how old he is. He's outworked all of us.”
For Johns it’s just an extension of his tendency to want to get to know people and what they face on a daily basis – whether campaigning or not.
“I go to church and 90 percent of the time, I'm the last one to leave. I try to speak to people and find out how they're feeling and what's going on,” Johns said. “A lot of times, especially with the older people, some of them don't get a chance to have nobody call them or talk to them. Just to walk by and say 'Your hair looks good today’...it makes them feel good and makes them feel that someone cares something about them.”
Pain and loss
Johns married and had two sons. But in 2004, tragedy struck -- twice.
This past week marked the 10-year anniversary of Johns losing his wife Lila to complications from diabetes. Later that year, on Dec. 17, his son suffered the same fate; he was 48. The second loss hit him harder, he said.
“You don’t anticipate burying your kid. You anticipate your kid burying you,” Johns said. “It was hard. The good master saw me through it. That’s one of the reasons I’ve tried to stay active.”
He also spends plenty of time worrying about other people’s lives. It doesn’t take a family ties for him to be moved to tears.
He said he had often chatted with a lady at his church who came with all six of her children each week about 30 years ago. He noticed her mouth and asked if she experienced toothaches a lot. She said she did, but had no money for a dentist. He arranged for her to go for free through his relationship with one.
“He examined her and told her, ‘I’ve been a dentist for a long time, but I’ve never seen a mouth that looks like yours.’ He said ‘I’ll do whatever I can to help you’” Johns said.
The dentist did his best, extracting at least one tooth and working on others. Johns paid for her $1.99 prescription afterward and visited her at home. He found them staying in a cold house, all six kids on one bed.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” Johns said.
He said he helped by bringing some food, and providing some oil for heat. She eventually moved to Dunn, and he went to visit her but couldn’t find her at the address she’d given. He hasn’t seen her since.
Spokesperson for the taxpayer
Johns was a member of the council that bought the pig farm that became Lake Benson Park for a good price, and later, the land that became White Deer Park. He has seen the town grow from a sleepy residential community of a few thousandto a small city with more than 26,000 residents and several shopping centers.
“We're going in the right direction,” Johns said.
He wants to be sure Garner’s growth is sustainable. He also works, if primarily by example, to help it retain its sense of community.
“He's been a constant spokesperson for the taxpayer. He's been good of the town and been good for the council,” Williams said of a man he calls a loyal friend. “And trustworthy. I’d trust him with every dime I have.”
Singleton said Johns embodies the town council’s tendency to be able to disagree but then move on without any ill feelings.
“Do what you think in your mind and your heart you think is the best thing to do,” Singleton said of Johns’ approach.
Johns walks every day and shows no signs of slowing down for the town he loves and says has been good to him.
“The people in Garner are very very nice,” Johns said.